Debate on Muslim Brotherhood ban reflects battle lines in US

Will the US put the Muslim Brotherhood on the list of terrorist organisations?

A debate in the Trump administration about a possible ban on the Muslim Brotherhood reflects a clash between right-wing figures in the White House and the US Congress against the foreign-policy establishment, analysts said.
Reports indicate the White House is working on an executive order that would start the process of putting the Brotherhood, a transnational movement of political Islam with millions of followers throughout the Middle East, on the US list of terrorist organisations. Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s chief strategist and a major power broker in the White House, once called the Brotherhood, which was established in 1928, “the foundation of modern terrorism”.
US Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and US Representative Mario Diaz- Balart, R-Florida, have introduced legislation that would urge the US State Department to designate the Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist group.
Apart from placing the terrorism stigma on the Brotherhood, the designation would make financial support or advice to the movement in the United States illegal and would ban Brotherhood members from travelling to the country. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is another organisation that could soon be placed under that same label in the United States.
A number of diplomats at the State Department and members of the National Security Council have argued against banning the Brotherhood because they say it could complicate US policy in the Middle East, the New York Times reported.
While several US allies in the region have banned the Brotherhood, groups affiliated with the movement have been playing important political roles in countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. Concerns have been raised that journalists or scholars could get into legal trouble if they contacted Brotherhood members for news stories or research if a ban were in place.
There has been no official statement by the White House about when an executive order targeting the Brotherhood would be issued. Analysts said some people within the Trump administration are pushing for the ban because they see it as a powerful signal of Washington’s determination to fight Islamic radicalism. “Some advisers might like the symbolism of it,” said Owen Daniels of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think-tank, “but more experienced people are advising against it.”
The Brotherhood issue is an example of how the potential actions and declarations of Trump, who was elected partly on promises of quick fixes, might collide with political complexities that have the potential to frustrate any swift solution. “There is a clash of an ideological impetus with a more complicated reality,” Daniels said.
An executive order or a congressional bill would instruct the State Department to look into whether the Brotherhood fit the criteria of a terrorist organisation, but the movement defies conventional definitions.
“The Brotherhood is not a very clear entity,” said Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. It was unclear whether the administration was targeting the Brotherhood in Egypt, Brotherhood affiliates in other countries or whether it was trying to move “against any organisation that is inspired by the Brotherhood”, Brown added. “It is very difficult to say what this administration will do.”
The State Department would have to ascertain that the Brotherhood was involved in terrorism and was threatening US nationals or US national interests before the organisation could be branded a terrorist group. The Brotherhood’s position on using violence for political means is ambivalent, with proclamations of a peaceful programme of transformation on one hand and support for some violent acts by Hamas and other organisations on the other.
Experts on the movement say a romanticised view of the Brotherhood as the representative of a strand of political Islam that is peaceful and compatible with Western democratic standards is just as distorted as the image of the group as a jihadist mothership inspiring terrorist groups in many countries.
A many-faceted group such as the Brotherhood calls for a careful approach, Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at George Washington University, said during a panel discussion on the movement in Washington. “The idea that you can deal with it with one executive order is uneducated by reality,” he said.
Sir John Jenkins, a former British diplomat and author of a policy review on the Brotherhood for the British government, said that core parts of the group’s ideology ran contrary to Western values but that this fact did not automatically lead to the conclusion that the movement should be branded a terrorist outfit.
“Illiberalism is constitutive” for the Brotherhood, Jenkins said. He added, however, that illiberalism and support for violence in some instances did not mean that a Western country could ban the whole movement.
“A lot of the things that we find problematic are already justiciable under existing laws,” Jenkins told the panel. He stressed that he did not want to get involved in the debate in the United States. “I am not a US citizen,” he said.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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